“There is not a king in Europe that would not look like a valet de chamber by his side.” (1775, Benjamin Rush)
“He has a dignity which forbids Familiarity mixed with an easy affability which creates Love and Reverence.” (1789, Abigail Adams)
Born Westmoreland County, Va. Culpeper Co. surveyor, 1749. District adjutant, 1752-53. Appointed lieutenant colonel, 1754. Commander in Chief of Virginia forces, 1755-58. Represented Frederick Co., 1758-65, and Fairfax Co., 1766-76, in House of Burgesses. Delegate to Congress, 1774-75. General and Commander in Chief, Continental Army, 1775-83. President-General, Society of the Cincinnati, 1783-99. President, Constitutional Convention, 1787. Chancellor, College of William and Mary, 1788-99. President of U.S., 1789-97. Lieutenant General and Commander in Chief, U.S. Provisional Army, 1798-99.
Descriptions of George Washington
Abigail Adams to John Adams, 16 July 1775
I was struck with General Washington. You had prepared me to entertain a favorable opinion of him, but I thought the one half was not told me. Dignity with ease, and complacency, the Gentleman and Soldier look agreeably blended in him. Modesty marks every line and feature of his face. Those lines of Dryden instantly occurred to me
“Mark his Majestick fabrick! he’s a temple
Sacred by birth, and built by hands divine
His Souls the Deity that lodges there.
Nor is the pile unworthy of the God.”
Benjamin Rush to Thomas Ruston, 29 October 1775
General Washington has astonished his most intimate friends with a display of the most wonderful talents for the government of an army. His zeal, his disinterestedness, his activity, his politeness, and his manly behavior to General Gage in their late correspondence have captivated the hearts of the public and his friends. He seems to be one of those illustrious heroes whom providence raises up once in three or four hundred years to save a nation from ruin. If you do not know his person, perhaps you will be pleased to hear that he has so much martial dignity in his deportment that you would distinguish him to be a general and a soldier from among ten thousand people. There is not a king in Europe that would not look like a valet de chamber by his side.
Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant to James Lovell, 20 November 1777
Things look gloomy enough below. We want a General; thousands of Lives & Millions of Property are yearly sacrificed to the Insufficiency of our Commander in Chief. Two Battles he has lost for us by two such Blunders as might have disgraced a Soldier of three Months Standing; and yet we are so attached to this Man that I fear we shall rather sink with him than throw him off our Shoulders. And sink we must under his Management. Such Feebleness & Want of Authority, such Confusion & Want of Discipline, such Waste, such Destruction will exhaust the Wealth of both the Indies & annihilate the Armies of all Europe & Asia. Twenty Thousand Recruits annually would be absolutely necessary to maintain an Army of forty thousand. I believe this is the most moderate Calculation. In the mean Time People are so disaffected to the Service that no more Recruits can be got. In short, I am quite a Convert to Abraham Clarke’s Opinion; that we may talk of the Enemy’s Cruelty as we will, but we have no greater Cruelty to complain of than the Management of our Army.
Samuel Shaw to the Reverend Mr. Eliot, April 1783
[At a meeting of the officers of the Continental Army at Newburgh, N.Y., to force Congress to live up to its promises to compensate the officers.] The meeting of the officers was in itself exceedingly respectable, the matters they were called to deliberate upon were of the most serious nature, and the unexpected attendance of the Commander-in-chief heightened the solemnity of the scene. Every eye was fixed upon the illustrious man, and attention to their beloved General held the assembly mute. He opened the meeting by apologizing for his appearance there, which was by no means his intention when he published the order which directed them to assemble. But the diligence used in circulating the anonymous pieces rendered it necessary that he should give his sentiments to the army on the nature and tendency of them, and determined him to avail himself of the present opportunity; and, in order to do it with greater perspicuity, he had committed his thoughts to writing, which, with the indulgence of his brother officers, he would take the liberty of reading to them. It is needless for me to say any thing of this production; it speaks for itself. After he had concluded his address, he said, that, as a corroborating testimony of the good disposition in Congress towards the army, he would communicate to them a letter received from a worthy member of that body, and one who on all occasions had ever approved himself their fast friend. This was an exceedingly sensible letter; and, while it pointed out the difficulties and embarrassments of Congress, it held up very forcibly the idea that the army should, at all events, be generously dealt with. One circumstance in reading this letter must not be omitted. His Excellency, after reading the first paragraph, made a short pause, took out his spectacles, and begged the indulgence of his audience while he put them on, observing at the same time, that he had grown gray in their service, and now found himself growing blind. There was something so natural, so unaffected, in this appeal, as rendered it superior to the most studied oratory; it forced its way to the heart, and you might see sensibility moisten every eye. The General, having finished, took leave of the assembly. . . .
Marquis de Lafayette to George Washington, 22 July 1783
I must again tell you how happy you made your friend by your letters enclosing the proceedings of the army. In every instance, My dear General, I have the satisfaction to love and to admire you. The conduct you had on that occasion was highly praised throughout all Europe, and your returning to a private station is called the finishing stroke to an unparalleled character. Never did a man exist who so honorably stood in the opinions of mankind, and your name, if possible, will become still greater in posterity. Everything that is Great, and everything that is Good were not hitherto united in one man. Never did one man live whom the soldier, statesman, patriot, and philosopher could equally admire, and never was a Revolution brought about, that in its motives, its conduct, and its consequences could so well immortalize its Glorious Chief. I am proud of you, My dear General, your Glory makes me feel as if it was my own—and while the world is gaping at you, I am pleased to think, and to tell, the qualities of your heart do render you still more valuable than anything you have done.
George Washington to Francis Hopkinson, 16 May 1785
[Washington responds favorably to Hopkinson’s request that he sit for his portrait by Robert Edge Pine.] In for a penny, in for a pound, is an old adage. I am so hackneyed to the touches of the Painter’s pencil, that I am now altogether at their beck, and sit like patience on a Monument whilst they are delineating the lines of my face.
It is a proof among many others, of what habit & custom can effect. At first I was as impatient at the request, and as restive under the operation, as a Colt is of the Saddle— The next time, I submitted very reluctantly, but with less flouncing. Now, no dray moves more readily to the Thill, than I do to the Painters Chair.
Robert Hunter Jr., Travel Diary, 16 November 1785
. . . at half past eleven we left Alexandria with Mr. [Richard Henry] Lee, the president of Congress, his son, and the servants. You have a fine view of the Potomac, till you enter a wood. A small rivulet here divides the General’s estate from the neighboring farmer’s. His seat breaks out beautifully upon you when you little expect, being situated upon a most elegant rising ground on the banks of the Potomac, ten miles from Alexandria. We arrived at Mount Vernon by one o’clock—so called by the General’s eldest brother, who lived there before him, after the admiral of that name.
When Colonel Fitzgerald introduced me to the General, I was struck with his noble and venerable appearance. It immediately brought to my mind the great part he had acted in the late war. The General is about six foot high, perfectly straight and well made, rather inclined to be lusty. His eyes are full and blue and seem to express an air of gravity. His nose inclines to the aquiline; his mouth small; his teeth are yet good; and his cheeks indicate perfect health. His forehead is a noble one, and he wears his hair turned back, without curls (quite in the officer’s style) and tied in a long queue behind. Altogether, he makes a most noble, respectable appearance, and I really think him the first man in the world. After having had the management and care of the whole Continental Army, he has now retired without receiving any pay for his trouble. And though solicited by the King of France and some of the first characters in the world to visit Europe he has denied them all and knows how to prefer solid happiness in his retirement to all the luxuries and flattering speeches of European courts.
The General was born and educated near Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock. He must be a man of great abilities and a strong natural genius, as his master never taught him anything but writing and arithmetic. People come to see him here from all parts of the world; hardly a day passes without. But the General seldom makes his appearance before dinner, employing the morning to write his letters and superintend his farms, and allotting the afternoon to company. But even then he generally retires for two hours, between tea and supper, to his study to write.
Abigail Adams to Mary Cranch, 12 July 1789
Our August President is a singular example of modesty and diffidence. He has a dignity which forbids Familiarity mixed with an easy affability which creates Love and Reverence.
John Adams to Sivanus Bourn, 30 August 1789
I must caution you, my dear Sir, against having any dependence on my influence or that of any other person. No man, I believe, has influence with the President. He seeks information from all quarters, and judges more independently than any man I ever knew. It is of so much importance to the public that he should preserve this superiority, that I hope I shall never see the time that any man will have influence with him beyond the powers of reason and argument.
Abigail Adams to Mary Cranch, 5 January 1790
[Washington] has so happy a faculty of appearing to accommodate & yet carrying his point, that if he was not really one of the best intentioned men in the world he might be a very dangerous one. He is polite with dignity, affable without familiarity, distant without Haughtiness, Grave without Austerity, Modest, Wise & Good. These are traits in his Character which peculiarly fit him for the exalted station he holds, and God Grant that he may Hold it with the same applause & universal satisfaction for many many years, as it is my firm opinion that no other man could rule over this great people & consolidate them into one mighty Empire but He who is set over us.
Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 16 March 1791
To overdo a thing with him is to undo it.
John Marshall: Speech in U.S. House of Representatives, 19 December 1799
The melancholy event which was yesterday announced with doubt, has been but too certain. Our Washington is no more! The hero, the sage, and the patriot of America— the man on whom in times of danger every eye was turned and all hopes were placed, lives now, only in his own great actions, and in the hearts of an affectionate and afflicted people.
If, sir, it had even not been unusual openly to testify respect for the memory of those whom Heaven had selected as its instruments for dispensing good to men, yet such has been the uncommon worth, and such the extraordinary incidents which have marked the life of him whose loss we all deplore, that the whole American nation, impelled by the same feelings, would call with one voice for public manifestations of that sorrow which is so deep and so universal.
More than any other individual, and as much as to one individual was possible, has he contributed to found this our wide spreading empire, and to give to the western world its independence and its freedom.
Having effected the great object for which he was placed at the head of our armies, we have seen him converting the sword into the plough-share, and voluntarily linking the soldier in the citizen.
When the debility of our federal system had become manifest, and the bonds which connected the parts of this vast continent were dissolving, we have seen him the chief of those patrons who formed for us a constitution, which, by preserving the union, will, I trust, substantiate and perpetuate those blessings our revolution had promised to bestow.
In obedience to the general voice of his country, calling on him to preside over a great people, we have seen him once more quit the retirement he loved, and in a season more stormy and tempestuous than war itself, with calm and wise determination, pursue the true interests of the nation, and contribute more than any other could contribute, to the establishment of that system of policy, which will, I trust, yet preserve our peace, our honor and our independence.
Benjamin Rush to John Adams, 8 July 1812
Among the national sins of our country that have provoked the wrath of Heaven to afflict us with a war, I ought to have mentioned in my last letter the idolatrous worship paid to the name of General Washington by all classes and nearly all parties of our citizens, manifested in the impious application of names and epithets to him which are ascribed in Scripture only to God and to Jesus Christ. The following is a part of them: “our Saviour,” “our Redeemer,” “our cloud by day and our pillar of fire by night,” “our star in the east,” “to us a Son is borne,” and “our Saviour,” our Redeemer,” “our cloud by day and our pillar of fire by night,” “our advocate in Heaven.”
John Adams to Benjamin Rush, 21 June 1811
[In speaking of the “masters of the theatrical exhibitions of politics.] Washington understood this art very well, and we may say of him, if he was not the greatest President, he was the best actor of presidency we have ever had. His address to the states when he left the army, his solemn leave taken of Congress when he resigned his commission, his Farewell Address to the people when he resigned his presidency: these were all in a strain of Shakespearian and Garrickal excellence in dramatical exhibitions.